It is often said that the book is vastly superior to its movie adaption. Oftentimes that is very true, as evidenced in the last year with the embarrassing Hollywoodized adaption of The Martian that lacked any of the novel’s charisma, appreciation for science, or sense of realism. The fundamental flaw of most adapted movies is that they ignore the narrative intentionality of the novel author and interject their own vantage into the writing, which usually causes the film to come off as disjointed and obviously inferior.
Yet every once and a while a movie surprises audiences by surpassing the novel’s impact. There are a few contributing factors to this, such as the novel writer functioning as a co-writer of the script, screenwriters carefully embellishing on the novel’s already established framework, and occasionally trimming unnecessary content from the novel to craft a more impactful narrative. Occasionally writers add to the narrative, giving characters and the narrative more room to flourish. For example, Jack Nicholson’s character in Terms of Endearment as Garrett Breedlove, the ex-astronaut neighbor of Shirley MacLaine’s, was actually not in the novel at all. The character was specifically written (with Jack Nicholson in mind) to provide a dense film with much needed comic relief, but to also give MacLaine’s character more depth with her interactions with Garrett as they attempt a romance. Nicholson’s performance, ironically, is one of the most memorable components of Terms of Endearment…and the character didn’t exist in the novel. This is an example of screenwriters maintaining respect for the original content of the novel, but giving it some embellishment to strengthen character development.
The below examples of movies being superior to the novel are primarily due to an appreciation to the source content, but also allowing for the film to be properly formatted in a way that would appeal to a moviegoer audience.
Into the Wild (2007)
Jon Krakauer’s work of journalism about true-life individual Christopher McCandless, who abandoned all his possessions after his graduation from college, choosing to live as a drifter, and ultimately dying in the wilderness in Alaska in 1992, was a tragic story about someone seeking to experience the world and dying in the process. The movie took the novel and elaborated upon McCandless’ journey and his various interactions with others. The film truly brought to life the sense of adventure and innocence that permeated throughout Krakauer’s novel. While Emile Hirsch was perfectly cast as McCandless, the most poignant component of the film was the performance from Hal Holbrook who starred as Ron Franz, the last person who saw McCandless alive. It was an extraordinary example of someone making something tremendous out of a small role.
While the novel by Richard Hooker was an excellent war satire, the movie went even further in its hilarity. The movie picked and chose specific moments within the novel and transitioned them into episodic instances within the film that were brilliantly strung together with hilarious camp announcements that travel throughout the camp via intercom. Ironically it is now argued that the famous television adaption is considered better than the movie.
Susan Orlean’s novel The Orchid Thief is about her investigation of the 1994 arrest of John Laroche for poaching rare orchids. It’s a simple enough story to follow. However, leave it to the talented and eccentric mind of Charlie Kaufman to write its movie adaption where he interjected himself in the plot as he struggled to adapt The Orchid Thief into a movie. This is scriptwriting at its finest because the film firstly functions as a beautiful adaption of Orlean’s novel with the Meryl Streep/Chris Cooper subplot, but the film hilariously digresses from the source material into being a satire about writing and focusing on the self-absorbed neurosis of writers. Additionally, the film is a satire of how a movie becomes Hollywoodized so easily with the sensitive story of Orlean and Laroche hilariously shifting to a narrative about drug running and violence. Adaptation is a one-of-a-kind film experience.
The Peter Benchley novel is glaringly inferior to its movie adaption. This is because the novel’s characters are barely fleshed out and the narrative often meanders from the shark threat. The movie was smart to eliminate the novel’s unnecessary subplots, such as mobsters threatening police chief Brody from closing the beaches to Brody’s wife having an affair with Hooper. These subplots detracted from the main premise of the narrative and the movie decision to ignore them was exceedingly wise. Steven Spielberg knew the suspense was with the threat of a shark attack occuring and by making that the focal point of the movie, Jaws was a vastly superior film than novel.
The Birds (1963)
The famous Alfred Hitchcock movie was based off of Daphne du Maurier’s short story of the same title. The movie adaption solely borrowed the short story’s premise of birds attacking and ignored the remainder of its content. However, in replacement is Hitchcock’s macabre vantage of horror and suspense and as a result, the film has been immortalized as one of the greatest horror films of all time. The advantage this film had over the short story is in its visuals, using scenery, color, and quick editing to craft a frightening image of nature attacking humanity for seemingly no reason.
The Grifters (1990)
The movie adaption of the Jim Thompson novel is a perfect adaption of the 1963 noir novel about con artists. The movie was wise to strip away the unnecessary subplots from the novel that focused on morality and instead placed sole focus on the subtext of desperation with the characters, giving them a new dimension as to why they con others out of money. Added to that, as brilliant as the novel is, Angelica Huston’s performance as Lilly Dillion elevated the movie tremendously more than what the novel could provide.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
The film was based off of Joseph Conrad’s classic 1899 novella Heart of Darkness, which was a story about a captain named Marlow and his travels up the Congo River as he learns about and gradually becomes obsessed over an ivory trader named Kurtz, who has broken ranks and has become a god to the natives. Frances Ford Coppola was brilliant in modernizing the content of the novella away from the Congo and focusing it on a Vietnam War setting. The movie shows tremendous respect for the novella, but also is its own entity with Vietnam War imagery that remain as beacons of extraordinary filmmaking today. Apocalypse Now also perfectly captured the concept of an isolated odyssey where madness and mayhem have become normalized and rationalized. This is perhaps one of the greatest films ever made.
Jurassic Park (1993)
In all fairness, Michael Crichton’s novel is just as outstanding as the movie. The novel is merely a separate experience than the movie with more characters and grittier instances of survival (or death). One shouldn’t compare the movie to the novel because they are two radically different narratives. However, as a film, Jurassic Park had to perfectly capture the awe and mystique of the island, while also expertly conveying the ramifications of creating life that shouldn’t have been conceived. Jurassic Park is more than a movie about survival, but is an adventure thriller that appeals to all moviegoers. This was achieved due to Steven Spielberg’s outstanding direction, its groundbreaking special effects, and also due to its incredible cast, primarily the principle leads (Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, and Richard Attenborough). Jurassic Park is a stunning achievement of film that didn’t get nearly as much recognition (award-wise) than it deserved.
The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (2004)
This HBO movie did the one thing the Roger Lewis biography couldn’t, it gave audiences a direct understanding of the public versus private persona of comedic actor Peter Sellers. Sellers, famously known for his performance as Dr. Strangelove or Inspector Clouseau (Pink Panther movies), was a hilarious actor who would break away from the script and would improvise flawlessly. However, Sellers was famously known as a vindictive, verbally abusive, childlike, highly difficult person to work with or even have a relationship with. The Roger Lewis biography functioned as a tell-all expose about the actor, but its content was dry and often difficult to follow. In contrast, the movie perfectly crafted a narrative about a complicated and often contradictory individual. Added to that, Geoffrey Rush’s performance as Peter Sellers was one of the most versatile, most unique, most extraordinary performances ever filmed by an actor. Rush, alone, made the film vastly superior than its source material.
The Shining (1980)
Stephen King reportedly hated Stanley Kubrick’s adaption of his horror novel, but truthfully, the movie enhanced the Stephen King novel beyond what it had to offer. Rather than framing the film like the novel where Jack Torrence is a seemingly normal guy who is slowly possessed by the ghosts in the hotel, Kubrick chose to craft the film with Jack Torrence already seething with the potential of going insane and giving the audience a vantage of that mental descent. This changed the entire aura of the film, making it more eerie and allowing for the Overlook Hotel to essentially be its own character within the film. Kubrick was also strategic in implementing visuals into the film that stay with the viewer, such as the elevator of blood, the hacked twins in the hallway, and the rotting woman in the bathtub. Of course, the wisest decision from Kubrick was to increase the horror of the narrative by having Jack Torrence attack his family with an ax, a deviation from the roque mallet used by Jack in the novel. While the ghosts and apparitions carry the narrative, it is the madness of Jack Torrence that drives the narrative, which made the film infinitely better than the novel.